Book Review
The Amazon:

What Everyone Needs to Know

by Mark J. Plotkin, Ph.D.
After a lifetime of work in the Amazon region of South America, ethnobotanist and conservationist Mark J. Plotkin is sharing his expertise in a detailed and thought-provoking anthology. Since the 1980s, his career has focused on the people, plants and animals unique to this biodiversity hotspot. The Amazon: What Everyone Needs to Know is the culmination of these years of work and showcases the multiple reasons why this region is so important to our world.

These information-lined chapters provide the perfect intel for travelers, outdoor aficionados, students of biology or those just curious about a uniquely biodiverse region. Covering a vast array of topics from geology, industrial history, indigenous communities and animal biology, the content of each section is driven by common questions. Starting with the appropriate "What is a tropical rainforest?", readers are taken on a journey from the origins and history of this vast region to current conservation issues and calls to action for the protection of this unique and essential place. Many of us know the rainforest of myth and lore but Plotkin reveals to readers that "rainforest fact is no less fascinating than rainforest fiction," and showcases the unique aspects of this region that harbors as much as "50% of the world's terrestrial biodiversity on a mere 16% of the earth's surface." There is much to learn from the rainforests of the world, with potential discoveries for many different fields from pharmaceuticals to cosmetics and sustainable engineering to agriculture.

Plotkin's thorough review of all things Amazonia makes us ask the question, what are we losing as this region is irretrievably changed? Its vastness and rich diversity of life also makes it a target for exploitation, with special attention from outside forces within the soy and palm oil agriculture, mining, and large scale cattle ranching industries all having severe detrimental effects.

"In the age of accelerating climate change, the fate of

Amazonia affects everyone. Home to almost 400 billion trees,

this rainforest plays a vital role in stabilizing global climate by

absorbing titanic amounts of carbon dioxide— or releasing it

into the atmosphere if immolated. Living forests therefore mitigate

climate change, while deforestation exacerbates the process.

Rainforests also exhale enormous amounts of water during

photosynthesis. Scientists estimate that most of the moisture in

the Amazon remains in this relatively closed cycle as the rain

returns the water to the forest and the rivers. Deforestation,

however, breaks the cycle— rainfall declines and droughts


Throughout, the theme content continues to highlight how the health of one ecosystem component affects the viability of them all. The loss of biodiversity or damage to one section of habitat negatively impacts the animals and humans living within this shared ecosystem. As Plotkin highlights, since Amazonia has an impact on global water systems, air quality and carbon sequestration, when the Amazon falls ill, we all suffer. "The destruction of any one of the millions of species living there could have a disastrous impact on many, many others." So now that we, the reader, understand just how and why the Amazon is so special and important, what must be done to protect it? The final pages revolve around this very topic and give hope that it's not too late to save this Eden on Earth. Focusing on big ticket deforestation drivers like agriculture, mining and resource extraction, hydroelectric power, and governance, Plotkin gives solutions and guidance that demonstrates how caring for the health of the Amazon's indigenous communities at the local level will ultimately create a healthier and more sustainable planet for all.

"So that is what we mean we talk about "'the Amazon'": one of the earth's greatest wonders, knowable and unknowable, enduring and vulnerable, and a place of infinite wonder that is increasingly threatened. We ignore this at our peril."

Book Review by writer and naturalist, Julia R. Hill
Chiribiquete National Park, Colombia
Photo: Mark J. Plotkin

Xingu dancers. Mato Grosso, Brasil
Photo: Mark J. Plotkin
Author Biography

Dr. Mark J. Plotkin has led Amazon Conservation Team and guided its vision since 1996, when he co-founded the organization with his fellow conservationist, Liliana Madrigal. He is a renowned ethnobotanist who has spent almost three decades studying traditional plant use with traditional healers of tropical America.

Among his many influential writings, Dr. Plotkin may be best known for his popular work Tales of a Shaman's Apprentice (1994), which has been printed continuously and has been published in multiple languages. Other works include the critically acclaimed children's book The Shaman's Apprentice - A Tale of the Amazon Rainforest, illustrated by Lynne Cherry, and Medicine Quest: In Search of Nature's Healing Secrets. His most recent book, The Killers Within: The Deadly Rise of Drug-Resistant Bacteria, coauthored with Michael Shnayerson, was selected as a Discover Magazine book of the year.

Dr. Plotkin has received the San Diego Zoo Gold Medal for Conservation; the Roy Chapman Andrews Distinguished Explorer Award; an International Conservation Leadership award from the Jane Goodall Institute; and, with Liliana Madrigal, the Skoll Foundation's Award for Social Entrepreneurship. In 2010, he received the honorary degree of "Doctor of Humane Letters" from Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon. Dr. Plotkin was educated at Harvard, Yale and Tufts University.
Find Mark's book here:

The Amazon is a land of superlatives. The complex ecosystem covers an area about the size of the continental U.S. The Amazon River discharges 57 million gallons of water per second--in two hours, this would be enough to supply all of New York City's 7.5 million residents with water for a year. Its flora and fauna are abundant. Approximately one of every four flowering plant species on earth resides in the Amazon. A single Amazonian river may contain more fish species than all the rivers in Europe combined. It is home to the world's largest anteater, armadillo, freshwater turtle, and spider, as well as the largest rodent (which weighs over 200 lbs.), catfish (250 lbs.), and alligator (more than half a ton). The rainforest, which contains approximately 390 billion trees, plays a vital role in stabilizing the global climate by absorbing massive amounts of carbon dioxide--or releasing it into the atmosphere if the trees are destroyed. Severe droughts in both Brazil and Southeast Asia have been linked to Amazonian deforestation, as have changing rainfall patterns in the U.S., Europe, and China. The Amazon also serves as home to millions of people.

Approximately seventy tribes of isolated and uncontacted people are concentrated in the western Amazon, completely dependent on the land and river. These isolated groups have been described as the most marginalized peoples in the western hemisphere, with no voice in the decisions made about their futures and the fate of their forests. In this addition to the What Everyone Needs to Know series, ecologist and conservation expert, Mark J. Plotkin, who has spent 40 years studying Amazonia, its peoples, flora, and fauna. The Amazon offers an engaging overview of this irreplaceable ecosystem and the challenges it faces.
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